Chronic stress is a dangerous condition that must be addressed before it leads to burnout or other serious illnesses. When we’re chronically stressed, our body is in a constant state of fight or flight with little ability to rest and recovery. This kind of prolonged stress is harmful and very different to the short bursts of stress, that help us rise to a challenge and perform at our best. We’re built to handle stress as long as it’s intermittent. Trying to avoid stress isn’t possible, nor is it advisable. The trick is to build in sufficient time to recover. As soon as a stressful event is over, we’re meant to relax so that our body and mind can rest and build back strength.
Sadly, people often aren’t able to detect that they suffer from prolonged stress, even if it’s obvious to others. That’s because they become used to the high levels of adrenaline and get addicted to the buzz it creates. To make matters worse, many dismiss their aches and pains. They don’t want to show weakness and they tell themselves, that their ailments are normal. But if we want to avoid burnout, we have to take the warning signs seriously. That includes symptoms as diverse as memory problems, insomnia, frequent colds, impatience and not being able to sit still without fidgeting or checking the phone. If someone is overly anxious or can’t relax during a holiday or on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a warning sign that should not be ignored.
Unhelpful beliefs are at the root of stress
Chronic stress is often caused by a combination of external and internal factors. External factors can relate to an excessive workload, unrealistic deadlines or a company culture that expects employees to work overtime. But external factors are never the root cause of why someone ends up chronically stressed. Internal factors, in the form of unhelpful beliefs and behaviours on the part of the employee, play a crucial role. It could be, for instance, that the individual has difficulties saying no, because they’re motivated by an unhealthy need to be seen and validated. It’s also possible that they drive themselves too hard because they’re addicted to being in control and can’t let go of the detail.
This is not to say that the organisation is innocent. Managers have to take responsibility for aggressive deadlines and for expecting staff to work overtime to meet them. At the same time, the individual has to understand why they are prone to stress and why they have difficulties setting boundaries and prioritising their own needs. A good question to ask, is under what circumstances they would be able to approach themselves with more softness and compassion.
Type A personalities are more prone to burn-out
People who are the most likely to burn out are type A personalities, perfectionists and people-pleasers. Whilst type A personalities are results-oriented, energetic and feel that they are able to deal with anything, people-pleasers are driven by the desire to not let others down. In a work-environment these types are highly sought after because they get things done and are keen to meet or exceed expectations. But although their work-ethic can be gratifying, it will take a toll over time, and it can put undue pressure on others.
To avoid burnout, type A personalities would benefit from scaling back their goal-orientation and letting go of unrealistic expectations. When someone is too achievement-oriented, and measure their successes in terms of completed projects or milestones, they become overly attached to the outcome. A more fulfilling way to approach work and life would be to enjoy the journey, and to build sound relationships that can be nurtured on a day-to-day basis. Opening up, showing vulnerability and being genuinely interested in others can be a much better stress buster than many wellness programmes.
Learning to set healthy boundaries
Everyone has a different level of energy and a different threshold for how much pressure they can handle. It’s also true, that whilst specific activities tend to drain some people, others find them energising. To avoid burnout, employees have to be honest with themselves about their limitations and take them seriously. A good place to start is to reflect on the activities they tend to find draining during an average week, and the activities give them energy. The equation has to stack up. Burnout happens when a person spends more energy than they gain for a prolonged period of time. When I did this exercise many years ago, I came to the conclusion that during the week, my energy levels were fine up until 6pm. At that point I would usually spend an extra hour at the office responding to emails before going home. It was this last hour that drained me. Once I realised that, I restructured my day so that I didn’t end up drained. Staying on the healthy side of stress, however, isn’t just about someone’s behaviour at work. Many tend to also overcommit themselves in their private life. Either way, the first step in making a lasting change is to become self-aware and being willing to listen to the signals from within the body.
Become a mindful observer
Self-awareness also plays a crucial role in helping employees manage their emotions when their stress hormones begin to rise. Being self-aware gives them the ability to become mindful observers of their thoughts and feelings without attaching too much judgement to them. As they observe themselves from the outside, they’re better able to put things in perspective and regulate their emotions before they take over. Failing to do that could result in someone becoming disproportionally emotional and overreacting. Perhaps they get overly sad or anxious, or they say and do things which they later regret.
To build this kind of awareness, employees will have to pause, relax their tense muscles, and take a few deep breaths the moment they start to feel triggered. Remembering to pause, relax and breathe may be counterintuitive, but it’s the only thing that can truly help someone to manage their emotional reactions. Instead of reverting to a knee-jerk reaction, the employee waits for their emotions to stabilise before responding. Not only will this help them to manage their stress response, it also puts them in a much better position to think clearly about the action they want to take.
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